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Nigerian Author Wins the Orange Prize

abstract:One of the world's top literary prizes has been won by the twenty-nine year-old Nigerian novelist for her book set in the 1960's Biafran civil war. Meet Chimamanda Ngozi Adichel and  her winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf, 2006) 


article:

June 14, 2007
— The Biafran flag has half a yellow sun. Both Adichel's grandfathers died in the Nigeria-Biafran war. Her parents have difficulty speaking of this. Both parents are academics and her sister is a physician. Adichel has been attending school in the US for over ten years, and will be working on her masters in African Studies at Yale University and teaching creative writing.

Adichel was nominated for both the Orange Prize, [restricted to female authors in the Commonwealth with an award purse of £ 30,000] and for the Mann-Booker Prize for her first novel, Purple Hibiscus: A Novel (Algonquin Books, 2003.) Her second and prize-winning book, is both a personal and compelling anti-war story. 

Two twin sisters, daughters of a wealthy businessman, are caught up in the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70. Adichie, an Igbo from the south-eastern corner of Nigeria that attempted to secede as Biafra, traces the tragedy of that war, which is estimated to have cost three million lives. But, by some literary sleight of hand, she does it without annihilating the reader's senses. There is blood, gore, nightmarish horror; but there is also drink, talk, friendship, shared struggle, and lots of sex. [When] Richard and Judy (Channel 4 television presenters in the UK) chose it for their book club - Half a Yellow Sun shot the novel into the bestseller lists.—Guardian

The story follows her country's post-colonial regime struggles after independence from Britain, and the divisive nature of class, power and money as told through the central character, the beautiful Olanna.

"Modern African history is the result of the intersection of pre-colonial societies, the colonial experience, the actions of post-independence leaders and the continuing pressure of the multinationals and the great powers. The book includes powerful passages explaining some of the historical background:

“The first time the Igbo people were massacred, albeit on a much smaller scale than what has recently occurred, was in 1945. The carnage was precipitated by the British colonial government when it blamed the Igbo people for the first national strike, banned Igbo-published newspapers and generally encouraged anti-Igbo sentiment,” says the author.

The war took place between July 1967 and January 1970. In that period between 500,000 and two million civilians died of starvation. The conflict began when a leftest coup in the eastern part of the country, populated mostly by Igbo took control of that region of the country for a short period followed by a northern contingent of people who mounted their own coup.

The basis of the secession was for control of the oil discovered in their country back in 1958.

"Half of a Yellow Sun deals with Biafrans’ desire to break away from the Nigerian state, and with the often murderous divisions between people from different ethnic backgrounds. Nigeria, a country with 130 million people, has many ethnic groups and hundreds of local as well as common languages."

But Adichel remains hopeful of the potential for unity – under the right conditions: “I really believe we can unite. I have never agreed with the argument that just merely by being different it means that people cannot live together. It’s about politics.

“I look at the Nigerian capital Lagos, and in the rich areas people from all different ethnic groups live together and get along perfectly alright with each other. But then in the poorer areas there are killings because people are told they cannot get jobs because the Igbo man has taken them."

“It’s not the differences themselves, but the way the differences are manipulated. Ethnicity has always been manipulated in Nigeria. If we hadn’t had political parties that were regionally based – and therefore tribally based – then I wonder if our history would have been different. The Biafran War was about separation, but the demand and need for separation arose because of political events. At various points in Nigerian history different groups have wanted to secede. We see that right from the start to the present day.

“The Igbo never wanted secession until the late 1960s. They were nationalist and pro-Nigeria. But this feeling was turned around by the massacres in the north of Nigeria. It isn’t that people were born with the need to live where there were only Igbo-speaking people – it is political events that led to those demands.”

Adichel stresses that amid the very real horrors of war people do incredible things: “Biafran people learned a certain independence during the war. People who were blockaded started to make their own engine oil. I deeply admire the self-reliance they showed. I didn’t want war just to be seen as a terrible thing, which it is of course. But it is also a time when people come together. It makes you realise what really matters.”

In the book Olanna and Kainene, who have been set apart by adultery, are reconciled because of their shared suffering during the war. Kainene says, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”

Another great African writer, Chinua Achebe, says that “Adichie came almost fully made” and her style is a remarkable combination of simplicity and depth. Half of a Yellow Sun is in some ways a very easy book to read. But it also has layers that can be appreciated again and again. Follow the rhythms in this passage that I took almost at random from the book:

“They were standing before the glass door. Ugwu held back from reaching out to touch the cement wall, to see how different it would feel from the mud walls of his mother’s hut that still bore the faint patterns of moulding fingers. For a brief moment, he wished he were back there now, in his mother’s hut, under the dim coolness of the thatch roof; or in his aunty’s hut, the only one in the village with a corrugated iron roof.”

The combinations of textures, the sense of touch, the various temperatures, the flow of the sentences all make the writing incredibly vivid. Adichel has written a wonderful book that brings together a hidden history and the lives of powerfully drawn individuals. She is an important voice in the debates about Africa’s future, and she plays a vital role as a woman promoting those debates.—excerpt from an interview postd on socialistworker.co.uk

Podcast interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichel, at guardian.co.uk/books/orange2007


The Orange Prize Winner
News: Half of a Yellow Sun sweeps to victory
Stephen Moss meets Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Audio interview at Hay festival (mp3)

The BookBuffet Links to Prize-winners

List of websites that show prizes awarded to authors for their body of work or for specific books.

 

 

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